is the title of the current, winter issue of the truly essential publication Rethinking Schools. As important as issues like excessive testing and privatization are to the future of American public schools, how we aree allowing them to increasingly serve as feeders for our criminal justice system is equally important. The editors of this essential publication are to be commended for the focus they bring to the topic, which is why I am devoting this posting to the current edition.
Before I do anything else, let me urge you to consider subscribing as one way of supporting the important work Rethinking Schools does, and/or perhaps making a contribution to help the sustaining this kind of important journalism in education.
As the editors make clear in their introductory editorial, Stop the School-to-Prison Pipeline this is a matter of equal justice and civil rights, as they pose the question
What if many of our students—particularly our African American, Latina/o, Native American, and Southeast Asian children—are being channeled toward prison and a lifetime of second-class status?
Before I explore further, let me list the relevant parts of this issue:
Schools and the New Jim Crow, an interview with Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness
Arresting Development, on zero tolerance and the criminalization of children, written by Annette Fuentes, author of Lockdown High: When Schoolhouse Becomes a Jailhouse
The Classroom-to-Prison Pipeline by Linda Christensen, an editor of the magazine who describes a relevant classroom experience
Haniyah's Story, an autobiographical essay by a 17-year-old who describes the impact of having a parent behind bars
Teaching Haniyah, where Jody Sokolower addresses the key question of how teachers can support students with incarcerated parents, siblings, and other relatives
Chicago's Peace Warriors, about a high school in high-violence neighborhood which tries non-violence a la Martin Luther King Jr. and Restorative Justice rather than more security and punishment
Teaching the Prison Industrial Complex, in which a groups of seniors who are at an alternative school after being expelled choose to study the prison system
Please keep reading.
If you read nothing else from this issue except the editorial, you may well be enraged at what is happening in our nation. Many here are aware of the explosion of incarceration in the United States, with the number locked up having exploded from about 325,000 in 1970 to well over 2 million today (2,292,133 at the end of 2009 according to the Bureau of Justice statistics). In the same period our population has gone from just over 203 million to just under 309 million. While our population has increased 67% our incarcerated population has increased by over 660%. Stop and read that again. Our incarceration rate has increased at ten times the rate of increase in our population. As the editors note,
this is a phenomenon that cannot be explained by crime rates or drug use. According to Human Rights Watch (Punishment and Prejudice: Racial Disparities in the War on Drugs, 2000) although whites are more likely to violate drug laws than people of color, in some states black men have been admitted to prison on drug charges at rates 20 to 50 times greater than those of white men. Latina/os, Native Americans, and other people of color are also imprisoned at rates far higher than their representation in the population. Once released, former prisoners are caught in a web of laws and regulations that make it difficult or impossible to secure jobs, education, housing, and public assistance—and often to vote or serve on juries. Alexander calls this permanent second-class citizenship a new form of segregation.
The impact of mass incarceration is devastating for children and youth. More than 7 million children have a family member incarcerated, on probation, or on parole. Many of these children live with enormous stress, emotional pain, and uncertainty.
To provide further context to what this means, Jody Sokolower, in her piece on the interview with Michelle Alexander, offers the following:
What is most striking about these numbers is the racial dimension. The United States imprisons a larger percentage of its black population than South Africa did at the height of apartheid. In Washington, DC, for example, it is estimated that 75 percent of young black men can expect to serve time in prison.
Alexander offers powerful words of the impact of the mass and increased incarceration rates. Families are broken, impacted by shame. Often those imprisoned are cut off from family, because they are locked up hundreds or even thousands of miles away, making visitation almost impossible. The most severe impact is upon the children, as Alexander notes:
But also, for these children, their life chances are greatly diminished. They are more likely to be raised in severe poverty; their parents are unlikely to be able to find work or housing and are often ineligible even for food stamps.
For children, the era of mass incarceration has meant a tremendous amount of family separation, broken homes, poverty, and a far, far greater level of hopelessness as they see so many of their loved ones cycling in and out of prison. Children who have incarcerated parents are far more likely themselves to be incarcerated.
When young black men reach a certain age—whether or not there is incarceration in their families—they themselves are the target of police stops, interrogations, frisks, often for no reason other than their race. And, of course, this level of harassment sends a message to them, often at an early age: No matter who you are or what you do, you’re going to find yourself behind bars one way or the other. This reinforces the sense that prison is part of their destiny, rather than a choice one makes.
The editorial puts it bluntly:
Mass incarceration and the school-to-prison pipeline are among the primary forms that racial oppression currently takes in the United States.
Here let me offer an anecdote from the school in which i teach. Some time back the student newspaper offered a telling observation. We are a majority black school. About one third of our students are in our science and technology program, admission to which is by competitive examination. The students in that program are majority non-black, with whites the largest component and East and South Asian making up a substantial portion of the rest. Students observed that were a student in the hall without a pass, were it a female science and tech student she would probably just be sent on with a warning, but were he a black student in the comprehensive program he would almost inevitably receive some level of discipline. The students writing the piece were themselves from the science and tech program, but they interviewed students from across the school and the perception was pretty universal, even though all the administrators and security personnel in the building except one school security officer were themselves African-American.
Michelle Alexander addresses the impact of supposedly colorblind policies is nevertheless starkly "racialized." It is not merely those not of color who argue that if those locked up outside of school or disciplined within school are disproportionally those of color it must somehow be their fault:
It leads young kids of color to look around and say: “There must be something wrong with me, there must be something wrong with us. Is there something inherent, something different about me, about us as a people, that leads us to fail so often, that leads us to live in these miserable conditions, that leads us to go in and out of prison?”
I hope that by now you are getting a sense of the power of this issue of Rethinking Schools, as well as the importance of the topic under examination.
There are a number of educational policies that are contributing to the problem. One clearly has been the insistence of zero tolerance programs, begun as part of the Reagan administration's war on drugs, which expanded into a number of other initiatives, including things like the Safe and Gun-Free Schools Act which mandated a one year expulsion for brining a weapon to school. While it is true that a rash of hihg-profile school shootings contributed to a sense that authorities needed to crack down to prevent more severe violence, but this has expanded the punitive approach to behavior at a time when the documented incidence of violence in schools has been dropping significantly. The impact of such policies is heavily tilted against minorities. As Annette Fuentes writes in her contribution,
According to Breaking Schools’ Rulesercent of students in the state were suspended or expelled at least once between 7th and 12th grades. Just 3 percent of all disciplinary actions were for conduct—such as possessing a gun or drugs on campus—that trigger mandatory expulsion or suspension. The other 97 percent were made at the discretion of school administrators for violations of codes of conduct. Black and special education students were most likely to be suspended or expelled. And students suspended or expelled for discretionary violations were three times as likely to have a subsequent brush with the juvenile justice system.The problem is exacerbated when the teachers are either inexperienced and/or come from vastly different backgrounds than the students they teach (although I note that the mere difference of background does not have to lead to confrontation if the teachers receive proper training and orientation as to the cultural differences they will encounter). Fuentes notes that
Alienating curriculum, poor classroom management skills, and negative stereotypes of black youth can lead to authoritarian disciplining and overreliance on suspensions.That overreliance can be seen in statistics from just two states. In 2009-2010, California, with 6.1 million students, saw 757,000 suspension, and Texas, with 4.7 million students saw 1.6 million suspensions.
There are other dimensions to this crisis. Clearly our emphasis on testing and the consequent narrowing of the curriculum contributes to the problem. School have, as George Wood of the Forum for Education and Democracy notes, "a perverseincentiv ti allow or encourage students to leave" especially if they are likely to be low scorers on the tests by which schools are evaluated. Anyone who doubts this need merely look at the track record of Texas during the Governorship of George W. Bush, when its claimed remarkable improvements in state test scores later became the basis of the perversely named legislation No Child Left Behind. In Texas, sometimes students were held back in 9th grade multiple times because the state tests were given in 10th. After a second holding back students might be encouraged to leave, hiding the dropout rate by listing the child as having gone to an alternative educational program because s/he said s/he might eventually get a GED. Or after being held back once, the child would be told s/he had made so much progress s/he was being skipped directly to 11th, and thus not tested. Rod Paige became U. S. Secretary of Education, after being honored as supposedly the best Superintendent in the nation by a professional organization, largely on claims of more than a 90% graduation rate in Houston schools, at a time when only around 40% of those who entered in 7th grade graduated on time with their cohort. Those forced out or held back and then skipped were heavily from poor families that were African-American or Hispanic.
This continues today. We read in the editorial
A FairTest factsheet cites findings that schools in Florida gave low-scoring students longer suspensions than high-scoring students for similar infractions, while in Ohio students with disabilities were twice as likely to be suspended out of school than their peers. A recent report from the Advancement Project noted that, since the passage of NCLB in 2002, 73 of the largest 100 districts in the United States “have seen their graduation rates decline—often precipitously. Of those 100 districts, which serve 40 percent of all students of color in the United States, 67 districts failed to graduate two-thirds of their students.”
The more that schools—and now individual teachers—are assessed, rewarded, and fired on the basis of student test scores, the more incentive there is to push out students who bring down those scores. And the more schools become test-prep academies as opposed to communities committed to everyone’s success, the more hostile and regimented the atmosphere becomes—the more like prison. (This school-as-prison culture is considerably more common in schools populated by children of color in poor communities as opposed to majority-white, middle-class schools, creating what Jonathan Kozol calls “educational apartheid.”) The rigid focus on test prep and scripted curriculum means that teachers need students to be compliant, quiet, in their seats, and willing to learn by rote for long periods of time. Security guards, cops in the hall, and score-conscious administrations suspend and expel “problem learners.”
There is so much more in this issue worth discussing, but this posting is already getting quite long.
Allow me to offer some commentary of my own.
These issues are not new to me, nor are they to anyone who pays serious attention to what is happening in American society. I have often described our public schools as the canary in the coal mine of American society. Most of us are quite aware of the explosion in the rate of incarceration in this country. Given that some states, particularly in the South (with my own state of Virginia being among the worst) conviction for a felony means a near-permanent ban on civic participation by voting or holding public office. Increasingly we are seeing a punitive approach within our schools similar to what we have seen with politicians of both parties demagoguing issues of criminal justice and public safety and order. How we treat children and adolescents in our schools gives them a very strong indication of what we think of them. If their school buildings are deteriorating, they know we don't value their education. When we pay several multiples of the per child expenditure for public schools to incarcerate people, they know we would rather jail them than educate them, something they might already know from the impact of seeing family members and neighbors have their lives permanently ruined by being imprisoned.
Our schools should be places of hope, of opportunity. Too often they are something that turns even bright students off to learning. Yet if you are a middle class student with educated parents they might be active enough to prevent your school from becoming a part of the pipeline, and they can provide the background and the resources to ameliorate the worst aspects of the school experience.
But if your family is already broken by the criminal justice system, if as a result you live in financially precarious circumstances, school could be the only opportunity you have for a better life. Yet increasingly those schools are narrowing the opportunity, especially for those already being sucked in to the school to prison pipeline.
If you care about public schools, I cannot urge you strongly enough to read this issue of Rethinking Schools. The entire edition is available online.
There are few places in which most of the real issues in our schools are fully and honestly examine. Rethinking Schools is one of them, and therefore essential for those who care about social justice for our young people. I urge you to consider supporting them by subscribing and/or contributing.
Perhaps you can donate a subscription to your local public or school library.
You certainly can pass on the links for individual articles or for this entire issue to those who should care about all of our public schools.
I thank you for reading.
I beg you to do more, however you can.